Happy Holidays. Season’s Greetings. Merry Christmas. No matter your rank in the Grand Army of the Culture Wars, this much can be agreed upon: The final, holiday-laden month of our calendar is festive and memorable. Christmas, officially the commemoration of the arrival of Yeshua ben-Yosef some 2,000 years ago, is celebrated by billions around the globe each Dec. 25. Naturally, in every country that observes, folks partake in unique local traditions – some religious, many secular. But no one does it quite the way we Americans do. So settle in, dear patriots – maybe even in your kerchief or cap. Here are a few stories about a few of our uniquely American customs.
Let’s get this party started
The season officially begins the day after Thanksgiving in America – a day that has come to be known as “Black Friday.” The origin of calling our first big shopping day before Christmas “Black Friday” is debatable; some point to the massive sales figures that retailers achieve. That’s when their balance sheets go from “in the red” to “in the black.” OK.
More likely, the term – just like our Constitution – originated in Philadelphia. In the 1960s, police in the City of Brotherly Love began describing the day after Thanksgiving, when suburban shoppers would rush in to start holiday shopping and/or pregame for the yearly Army-Navy football game, as Black Friday. Big crowds create challenges for law enforcement, who put in extra shifts and overtime to deal with all of the related tomfooleries.
Fearing negative callbacks to the financial crashes of the 1860s, Philly’s business leaders tried (unsuccessfully) to tweak the name to “Big Friday” but it didn’t catch on. “Black Friday” remained a local colloquialism for 30 years, until the idea guys on Madison Avenue caught wind and leveraged it to describe Americans’ annual pursuit of Savings! Savings! Savings! at early-morning doorbuster sales. You have to admit, it is a pretty badass name for a strange custom that’s not an official holiday.
Other countries often look down upon Black Friday in America, contending that it exploits the start of a solemnly religious holiday season in the name of capitalism. The tradition has spurred “Block Friday” movements in some western societies; we’ve even written about how consumerism and citizenship are not one and the same. Yet in a world of unfettered global commerce, American shopping sensibilities have inevitably spread with no signs of abating. So Black Friday might not be a solely American tradition for much longer (it does remain unclear if it’s any easier to get your hands on a PlayStation 5 in France, Germany, or the UK than it is over here, however).
Oy to the world
This brings us to a relatively minor Jewish holiday that has been punching above its weight class in modern times. Yes, we speak of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. It’s fair to say that Hanukkah has found a cozy, welcome spot around the glowing fire that is America’s holiday season. This has, however, led to some mixed feelings in the U.S. Jewish community.
Hanukkah’s proximity to Christmas has led wider American society to obliviously dub the annual eight-day observance “Jewish Christmas.” In fact, Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabees’ ancient uprising against their Greek oppressors as well as Jews who assimilated into the dominant, cosmopolitan culture of their day. The holiday was specifically intended not to appeal to the masses: “At its core, Hanukkah is about celebrating our Jewish particularity, relishing our differences from the wider world,” Stephanie Butnick, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer opined in 2021. “The commercialized Christmas creep, the repackaging of Hanukkah to fit the gingerbread cookie cutter mold, is precisely the sort of stuff those Maccabees were fighting.”
Still, like most holidays in the United States, Hanukkah has undergone inevitable Americanization. For example, Americans exchange eight nights’ worth of gifts a la Christians’ tradition of gift-giving at Christmas. Jewish communities in other parts of the world usually don’t do this – they tend to stick with tasty treats, menorah lighting, and the occasional game of dreidel.
It’s the great pumpkin, everyone
Before we get emails, let’s move away from religion to something all Americans enjoy: Food. Specifically, pumpkin and its holiday dominance. From September through December, try to swing a stick in the United States without smacking something pumpkin-flavored. You can’t do it.
This might be partly because pumpkin is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie, having emerged in North America some 9,000 years ago. It stands to reason that we’ve heavily integrated it into our end-of-year traditions. When we say pumpkin dishes are essentially American, we should clarify that they began, like most things in this neck of the woods, with Native Americans. Ancient Natives were the first to recognize the quality of this savory squash, and pumpkins were a longtime staple in diets from what became Mexico all the way up to the eastern United States. Along with beans and corn, Natives grew pumpkins and other winter squash alongside nearby river banks. This was the way for thousands upon thousands of years.
Enter Christopher Columbus. His (cough, cough) discovery (cough, cough) of America uncorked the exchange of food and animals – and let’s not forget disease – between the so-called “New World” and Europe. Within a few years, caravans of ships carried new varieties of livestock and foods to America, while shuttling our continent’s novel brands of nourishment back across the pond. Yet, like EuroDisney, pumpkins received a “meh” reception in the Old World. In 1770, The British Housewife called it “a very ordinary fruit … principally the food of the poor.” Ooh, them’s fightin’ words.
By the 1970s, farmers had created several hybrids just for carving, trading flavor for size and heartiness. This shift led to a brief wane in holiday pumpkin pies for several years, but thankfully and with the help of Starbucks, we snapped out of it. Today pumpkin pie can be found on Thanksgiving and Christmas tables across the land, and supermarket shelves are loaded with a plethora of pumpkin-spice foodstuffs – from almonds to potato chips to Twinkies to dog treats. We clever Americans can grow pumpkins for size, for decorations, and for soup, bread, pie, and desserts. Oh, and pumpkin-spice lattes, of course.
A hard-nog life
Is it really Christmas in America until you’ve had a frothy glass of eggnog? While we can’t claim absolute authorship of this holiday staple, its story mirrors the spirit of our young-and-thirsty country.
The beverage – a mix of eggs, milk, sugar, nutmeg, and aged spirits like brandy or sherry – was a year-round drink among British aristocrats in medieval times; workaday folks couldn’t afford its ingredients. However, eggnog began its holiday journey into households of average means when the British colonized North America. There were plenty of chicken-and-cow farms up and down the East Coast to produce eggs and milk. But instead of brandy or wine (which were heavily taxed in colonial America), colonists opted for “the drink of the marginalized” – rum. Despite the modification, eggnog was still seen as a special-occasion drink reserved for special gatherings. That explains why early Americans broke it out on the biggest holiday of the year in our young nation, and why we don’t guzzle it on, say, Flag Day.
Today, most Americans get eggnog from a carton at the grocery store, which is a pale imitation of the original. The web is full of traditional eggnog recipes, including one from the father of our country, George Washington who offered it to special guests at Mount Vernon. Here’s Eggnog a la George with added ingredient amounts (back then they didn’t always specify serving size).
“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry – mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well.
Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into the mixture. Let set in a cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”
Yule shoot your eye out
It’s distinctly American to curl up at Christmas and enjoy the glowing warmth of … an image of a fireplace on our television screens. C’mon, you know you’ve done it, even for just a few minutes. Each Dec. 24 and 25, a litany of TV networks and streaming services offer a version of the Yule Log being tickled by flames. While some wonder why this is even a thing, it can serve as a nice palate cleanser between Christmas Vacation and Elf, that’s for certain.
This custom began in New York City on Christmas Eve 1966, when WPIX-TV broadcast a burning Yule Log accompanied by traditional Christmas music. The station’s president envisioned the program as a televised Christmas gift to New Yorkers who lived in homes without fireplaces. Plus, WPIX employees then had the time and space to stay home with their families. The station was on to something: those 17 minutes of fireplace footage, humbly named The Yule Log, played in a loop for two to four hours each Christmas morning through 1989. In that time, it spawned a host of imitators. Today it’s almost impossible to track all of the derivative versions of this distinctly American tradition.
Some of our favorite variations in recent years: ESPN’s Mike Golic Jr. sitting by the fire in his jammies. Creators, players, and voice actors from the video game Overwatch hanging out on Twitch. And renowned character actor Nick Offerman silently pouring a glass of whiskey near a crackling flame and staring at the camera for an hour.
In a world so dominated by digital noise, there’s something peaceful knowing you can turn your TV to the Yule Log channel. There are few things more relaxing … other than a real fire in a fireplace, of course.
The real Big Red
No essay on U.S. holiday traditions is complete without a few words about the big man, the jolly guy, the jelly-bellied benefactor himself – Santa Claus. He’s such an indelible part of the holiday, in secular and religious households alike, that he needs no introduction. But we’ll do our best.
Modern-day Santa is a nod to the third-century monk St. Nicholas. Not much is known about the real St. Nick, except that he was born near a city called Myra in what is now southwestern Turkey and that he was known for his charity and kindness. In adulthood, he became a self-styled protector of children and sailors (maybe that’s why rum works so well in eggnog?). Saint Nick sleighed his way into the American consciousness in the years before the Revolution – in both December 1773 and 1774, many families in the historic Dutch city of New York began to gather en masse to honor the anniversary of his death. They called him Sinter Klaas, an abbreviated version of Sint Nikolaas, Say Sinter Klaas five times fast. Now you get it.
American Santa was beginning to round into form. By 1804, the New York Historical Society was giving away woodcuts containing now-familiar Santa images, including toy-stuffed stockings and food bounties above a fireplace. Around the same time, Washington Irving declared St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York and relentlessly promoted him as a beloved character. Irving even wrote a tongue-in-cheek account of the city’s founding that goes like this: Before New Amsterdam existed, a Dutch scouting party crashed on Manhattan Island. As the crew tried to decide what to do, one of them had a vision of “good St. Nicholas … riding over the tops of the trees” and telling the Dutch scouts to settle right there, in Manhattan. So in one tall tale at least, Santa Claus founded New York (It should be noted that beyond his interest in Santa, Irving took it upon himself to advance Christmas in America as a joyful parade of gifts and indulging that is still a staple of the holiday season. He may not be the original “Father Christmas,” but he’s among the Fathers of Christmas).
If Irving laid the groundwork for modern Santa mythos, a poem published in the Troy (NY) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823, solidified it. “A Visit from St. Nicholas” described a large-and-jolly Sinter Klaas with a penchant for sneaking down the chimney with presents in hand and then sailing away on a sled guided by eight magical reindeer (and, after 1939, nine with the addition of Rudolph, but that’s a subject for another time). The authorship of the poem is disputed, but its indelible effect on our imaginations isn’t.
Modern-day Santa owes his look to Thomas Nast, the German-born caricaturist whose rendition of The Bearded One became the iconic version Americans know today. Before Nast, Santa looked like the illustration on the left (from 1821). Nast’s red-fur-lined Santa, which he popularized from the 1860s to 1880s (right) is still familiar today. The transformation was now complete: A kind and charitable bishop from Turkey had officially become Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Season’s Greetings. And please, patriots, let us know if you spot any PS5s out there.